A Rare Revolutionary-era Rifle Is Returned to Museum 50 Years After It Was Stolen

  • PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania
  • /
  • November 05, 2019

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Detail of the Christian Oerter rifle, from 1775.
Museum of the American Revolution

This week, Philadelphia's Museum of the American Revolution and the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution and its Color Guard (PSSR) announced an agreement to publicly display a rare Revolutionary-era American firearm that has been missing for nearly half a century. The Christian Oerter rifle was acquired by the PSSR in 1963 and placed on loan to the Valley Forge Historical Society. The rifle was stolen in 1971 when it was on display at Valley Forge Park and was only recently recovered through the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The rifle will be on view at the Museum of the American Revolution from November 6 through March 17, 2020 as part of a special exhibition, Cost of Revolution: The Life and Death of an Irish Soldier.   

Antiques specialist Kelly Kinzle played an instrumental role in the rifle's rediscovery.
Museum of the American Revolution

Reports Karen Zwaick in the New York Times: "Officials said the rifle was recovered with the help of Kelly Kinzle, an antiques dealer in New Oxford, Pa. Jay Robert Stiefel, a lawyer for Mr. Kinzle, said that his client bought the firearm last year as part of a collection. As he researched it, he found a reference to a stolen Oerter rifle in a 1980 book by George Shumway, an expert on antique long rifles who died in 2011. Mr. Kinzle then turned the rifle over to the F.B.I."

“We are thrilled to again support and collaborate with the Museum of the American Revolution to further the missions of both of our organizations,” said Ben Wolf Sr., President of the Pennsylvania Society Sons of the Revolution and its Color Guard. “We are delighted that it will be on display for people to learn the stories of those individuals involved in our country’s fight for independence.”       

Inscription on the Christian Oerter rifle, with the date 1775.
Museum of the American Revolution

This American long rifle was made by Johann Christian Oerter (1747-1777), a master gunsmith whose workshop in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley produced firearms for the American Revolutionary cause. Only a handful of signed and dated American rifles from the Revolutionary era have survived. Oerter’s work is recognized by arms scholars as among the finest and most important.  

“It is deeply gratifying to be able to return to this rare artifact to public view after nearly fifty years,” said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, the Museum’s President & CEO. “The Christian Oerter rifle exhibits exemplary early American artistry and is a reminder that courage and sacrifice were necessary to secure American Independence.” 

Oerter was a member of the Moravian church, one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world whose adherents settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s. Moravian gunsmiths, who also worked in North Carolina during the era of the American Revolution, influenced the design of early American firearms.  

This example of Oerter’s work was made in 1775 at the start of the Revolutionary War. Oerter engraved his name, the date and the location of the shop—Christian’s Spring—on the top of the iron rifle barrel. Christian’s Spring, known as Christianbrunn in the German language spoken by most Moravians, was located near present-day Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It is likely that the original owner neatly carved the name W. Goodwin in the rifle’s wooden stock. Museum curators are engaged in research to identify this individual. 

The rifle will be housed in the Museum’s latest special exhibition, Cost of Revolution which tells the untold story of Richard St. George, an Irish soldier and artist whose personal trauma and untimely death provide a window into the entangled histories of the American Revolution and the ensuing Irish Revolution of 1798. 

The Museum of the American Revolution, which opened to the public on April 19, 2017, is the successor to the Valley Forge Historical Society and has a nationally significant collection of artifacts including the tent that General George Washington used as his mobile field headquarters during the Revolutionary War. 

For more information, visit www.AmRevMuseum.orgor call 877.740.1776. 


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